How Many Will Be Saved?1
I’m often asked the question, “How many will be saved? Has God sovereignly chosen only a few to inherit eternal life or will we discover at the end of history that the majority of mankind are redeemed?” Continue reading . . .
I’m often asked the question, “How many will be saved? Has God sovereignly chosen only a few to inherit eternal life or will we discover at the end of history that the majority of mankind are redeemed?” People immediately point to the words of Jesus: “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). Again we read: “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:14).But does this settle the matter? We also read in Revelation 7 of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9).
Undoubtedly other texts could be cited as evidence for both views: the one, that a minority of mankind will be saved, and the other, that a majority of people will be saved. Jonathan Edwards seems to assume that “there are but few of fallen men chosen to eternal life” (Miscellany 520, Yale, 18:64). He then proceeds to account for this. His argument is interesting. Whether or not it is persuasive is another matter.
First, Edwards believes that God has determined to save only a minority because this makes it all the more evident that they are saved solely by virtue of “the sovereign power and grace of God.” It is, says Edwards, “a remarkable and strange thing, that a few should be so different from all the rest of mankind.” Here is how he puts it:
“When [there is] such a distinction of a small part from the common mass, it the more commands notice; and it is natural to inquire what should be the cause of it. It is natural to inquire why these few, in these respects, are so different from all the rest, that are of the same kind of beings, of the same original, and otherwise in the same circumstances” (Yale, 18:65).
What he means by this, I think, is that when only some of a much larger group are singled out as different, we instinctively are alerted to it and ask why, especially when all in the group are of the same nature and have descended from the same original pair (Adam and Eve) and tend to live in the same or similar circumstances. What makes the smaller number to differ from the larger? Edwards is thus arguing that God orchestrated it in this fashion so that we would more readily attribute the difference between the two groups to sovereign, distinguishing grace. And in this way God is more glorified. Again, he explains:
“Why so few of all mankind [are saved], when all have the same nature? When a few are exceptions from all the world, ‘tis more apparent that divine power and sovereign will makes the difference. If the generality were so, we should be ready to think there was something in man’s nature that tended to it, or that there are some efficacious causes of it in man himself, or in what belongs to him, or in the common state or circumstances of mankind. But the smallness of the number [of those saved] leads us to seek a cause out of that nature which is common to mankind” (Yale, 18:65; emphasis mine).
In other words, if the vast majority, or even all of mankind, were to be saved, our tendency would be to attribute it to something in them rather than in God. Simply put, exceptions draw attention to the sovereign distinguishing will of God.
Edwards also appeals to what he believes is inherent in the word and concept of divine “election”. He says:
“’Election’ seems to denote a choosing out one or a few out of many, a choosing a portion out of the common mass; but if the multitude or mass itself was taken, and only a few distinguished ones left, this could hardly be called an election. The divine sovereign will is more obviously the cause of the distinction in such an election, when a few are distinguished from the generality and are chosen to a supernatural state, than if the generality [or majority] were designed to this state, and only a few left in their natural state” (Yale, 18:65).
His point, then, is that if the great majority of mankind were eventually saved our tendency would be to attribute this more to the natural state of humans than to the sovereign grace of God. “That which is rare is more taken notice of, and looked upon as more wonderful” (Yale, 18:65).
Consider this analogy:
“if God should by some miracle or wonder of providence wherein the divine hand was visible, and from a peculiar favor and love, snatch a man out of a sinking ship, he [the man] would be far more affected with God’s favor and love to him in particular, than if God had, by a miracle, stopped the leak and saved the ship and whole crew. This world is like a sinking ship” (Yale, 18:66).
Edwards appears, then, to explain the comparative fewness of those who are saved by pointing to two things. First, it was to highlight his own sovereign and distinguishing grace that God determined to save a minority of the human race. Second, those who are in fact saved out of the mass of humanity would be more inclined to rejoice in and be thankful for their deliverance than if the majority were likewise redeemed.
I’m not sure from Scripture that only a minority will be saved. But if it is true, Edwards has at least given us food for thought as to why God may have orchestrated it as such.